This summer, my kid completed his first swimming class. Prior to enrollment, he loved being in water but was afraid to wade alone or too far in. The first two days were his scariest – he quivered and trembled despite the aquatic professional on his opposite end. But every day I watched him improve and ultimately earn his official Swimmer’s Card and certification. His instructor made a point to dote on his immediate improvement in only two short weeks on the final day of class. “I love his energy,” she said. “He works hard and never gives up. To see where he is now from when he started is crazy! He’s been a pleasure to teach.” I sat there amazed at how far he’d come and that he was excited to move onto the next level.
Every day for those two weeks, I sat under the pavilion reading a book to pass the time. Immediately after my son’s class was an adult class. The attendants came outfitted early every day and in kindness, we’d nod and pass hellos. Aside from one person, all of them were middle-aged Black people eager to conquer swimming. I’m not sure of their reasons for wanting to learn to swim at this stage in their lives but I can imagine that slavery or it’s by parts had something to do with it. It also made me ponder on the general fear and uninterestedness most Black people associate with swimming.
In Season One of HBO’s Insecure, Issa Rae briefly touched on the issue of Black children not knowing how or wanting to swim. On a field trip to the beach, one of her insufferable male co-workers asked why the [Black] kids weren’t swimming. Issa’s one-word answer? “Slavery.”
I wondered if my childhood fears of swimming – and other Black folks who simply “don’t do” the water – were linked to our traumatic entrance into this country. Were the events of our chained ancestors being thrown overboard somehow transferred onto all of us? Did knowing that White people poured acid into pools filled with Black bodies during Jim Crow seep into our subconscious? Did images of “Whites Only” signs rush our memories when we approached a community pool? I’m not totally sure but I won’t completely count out those traumas or fears I’ve felt around swimming, which was inadvertently passed onto my child upon completion of his first swimming class.
On that last day of class, I surveyed the pool. From every corner it was filled with Black people of all ages, smiling and enjoying themselves. I put my book down to bask in the happiness I heard, felt, and saw — kids soaking up the sun on their last summer Friday, Black women in their 40s and 50s talking about their college educated children, innocent laughter, and peace. I attempted to take a photo but couldn’t catch a still perfect enough to capture what I’d spent 6 minutes choking back tears over. We were forced into this land via boats and rigs. As painfully irrevocable American slavery was, I mourn for the ancestors forced overboard with only trembles and prayers to keep them until their demise. I weep for the ancestors who watched their loved ones die in such a helpless way. I hurt for the generations still alive who remember being denied pool access due to racism and discrimination.
Our history is painful but seeing how far we’ve come, in this instant, copiously reinforced Black pride and love. Watching my son test his newly learned techniques in the deeper end of the pool (without assistance) caused tears to well up in my eyes. It put the commonplace phrase “Black people don’t swim” that I’ve heard all my life to bed. Whether due to a lack of resources, fear of drowning, or vain uncertainties about its effects on our appearance, I smile at the thought of more Black children and families swimming without fear or consequence in the future.
Ariel C. Williams is the founding editor-in-chief of Slay Culture. She’s a millennial who’s down for the culture, loves Netflix, and pegs Master P as one of her entrepreneurial heroes. Buy her book The Girl Talk Chronicles here. Follow her at @ArielSaysNow everywhere.